Monday, July 26, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 68 - The B-52s

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

It's summer!

I live in Florida, where to venture outside in July is essentially to take a trip into a sauna. But the Weather Channel tells me that the heat this summer is not necessarily confined to the southeastern United States - there's been a heat wave all up and down the East Coast, forcing people to flee into their miniature kingdoms of air conditioning.

This is no fun for anyone involved. But it's a good chance to veg out to summer music. I've always felt that certain kinds of art are best associated with certain seasons. Humid summer days are the time for paperback thrillers, action-heavy blockbusters, and goofy beach music.

I used to annoy my old college roommates by putting surf rock on constant rotation with the first sign of warm weather. A mild April day meant that I would lobby for Dick Dale, the Ventures, the Lively Ones, and other similar instrumental surf groups. There was something about the twangy guitar that I always thought was the perfect accompaniment to lounging outside in the summer time, whether drinking beer on the front porch of my apartment, or lazing by the seaside.

The B-52s are influenced a great deal by this sort of surf music, and I found myself enjoying it quite a bit this July. But they're one of those strange bands that I'm not sure if I would enjoy quite as much if I listened to them in October, or February. Rather, they're a summer band, and, like summer itself, the enjoyment I get from them is fleeting, and inevitably passes away. But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it while it lasts.



MY LISTENING: I listened to The B-52s (1979) every day this week. I also listened to Wild Planet (1980) and Cosmic Thing (1989) twice each.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: "Rock Lobster" and "Love Shack" are both songs that people are always partying to in movies. I don't think I have ever heard either one of these songs played at a real party, but they are ingrained in my mind regardless. Also, one time the B-52s were in that Flintstones movie as the "BC-52s" and it was really funny.


The B-52s manage to put on great party songs. They have a good sense of rhythm, their subject matter is usually goofy enough to clap your hands to, and the songs are peppered with catchy guitar hooks. It managed to put me in a good mood - it's light fare, easy to enjoy as background listening or driving music. The tongue-in-cheek sense of humor the band maintains is easily one of their biggest strengths. The B-52s are just out to have a good time, and if their songs are drenched in references to spaceships and surf rock, that's not a bad thing. A song like "Planet Claire" means absolutely nothing and its lyrics are nonsense, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. The B-52s wear kitsch and camp as a badge of pride.

Ricky Wilson's guitar is also a big asset, and he's largely responsible for crafting some of the band's best hooks. Listen to the sinister riff of "Rock Lobster" or the up-tempo strumming of "52 Girls" or the raucous opening to "Private Idaho." The B-52s lost something very important when he passed away due to AIDS-related complications and (the regrettable success of "Love Shack" aside) they never really recovered. Cosmic Thing adopted a different tack, with more poppy songs like "Roam" and "Deadbeat Club" which, while still enjoyable, lack the stuttery white-boy funk that Wilson's guitar provided.

Finally, I appreciated the harmonized female vocals, both on their own ("Private Idaho") and when contrasted with Fred Schneider's nasally sneer. Songs like "6060-842" somehow make the combination work. It shouldn't. It does. Don't ask questions.


The group's eponymous debut is pretty much a perfect statement of the band's strengths. You really don't need to go much further - most of the songs afterward are pretty much the same. It's not that the later albums are bad so much as they're just a rehash of the same thing. You can pick up the handful of truly memorable singles from Wild Planet on a Greatest Hits CD, and Cosmic Thing contains even less.

Also, "Love Shack." I can forgive "Rock Lobster." It's a fun song, goofy and enjoyable, so I don't mind how often it gets played. But that same forgiveness cannot be extended to "Love Shack." I don't know why - maybe because it lacks that surf guitar I like so much, but "Love Shack" is like some sinister parody of the B-52s - the hooks so catchy they're annoying, the chorus so singable that it never leaves your head, Fred Schneider's annoying voice overly accentuating syllables in the worst possible way ("If you see a faded sign at the side of the road..."). This song needs to be retired from the pop canon as soon as possible.

Most of my further problems come from the songs that overruse Fred Schneider. From his unbearable falsetto in "Channel Z" to his half-crazed screams of "Quiche Lorraine" to his demented motormouth on "Cosmic Thing," Schneider is an asset that can easily be overapplied. Administer with caution.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There are more B-52s albums - Whammy! (1983), Bouncing Off the Satellites (1986) and Good Stuff (1992). But do I really need to explore the B-52s any further? I'm not even sure I needed to explore them as much as I did.


BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "There's A Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)"

Like I said, all the B-52s' songs are sort of same-y, but this one at least has a title that makes me smile.

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: My initial plan was to go with some weird 70s prog rock like Genesis or Faust. But, when push came to shove, I realized I wasn't in the mood for prog rock next week, possibly because it would be too hard to come down from the party schlock of the B-52s. So, because the song "Coconut" came on the radio, I decided at the last minute to go with Harry Nilsson. We'll see how it goes.